By Dr Emiline Smith, Lecturer in Art Crime and Criminology, University of Glasgow
I recently travelled to the Asian Criminological Society’s 11th Annual Meeting, which was held in Cebu, the Philippines, in June this year. Criminologists from all over Asia and beyond attended this four-day conference themed ‘Contextualizing Challenges in Criminology and Criminal Justice in Asia.’ The wide range of presentation topics included community-based correction methods, big data ethics, anti-drug abuse initiatives and wildlife trafficking. I myself spoke about the potential facilitative role of large infrastructure projects, such as China’s Belt and Road Initiative, for transnational illicit markets, particularly the global trade in art and antiquities. What was notably absent from the presentations and discussions during this conference, however, was the topic of environmental crime and related perspectives on plastic pollution and climate change; a particularly pertinent topic to the archipelagic country of the Philippines.
Famous for its white sandy beaches, wildlife diversity, and heritage towns, the Philippines is a popular holiday destination. But walking along the Cebu coastline will make anyone painfully aware of the pressing global issue of plastic pollution, where plastic bags, straws, water bottles and food packaging line the waterfront. The Philippines is one of the world’s leading plastic polluters, due to the low cost and convenience of single-use plastics and inefficient waste disposal. Plastic pollution is accelerating global climate change (https://www.ciel.org/plasticandclimate/). The general effects of global climate change are in turn particularly noticeable in the Philippines due to its geography, for example through an increasing amount of deadly typhoons, rapid sea level rise, extreme rainfall and the eroding and bleaching of its coral reefs.
There is an overall lack of reflexivity, and more importantly, action, regarding the contributions criminology academics and academia make to heightened carbon emissions and plastic pollution. For example, academic conferences come at a huge environmental cost: from the name tags and ‘goodie-bags’ at registration to the imported foods at the organized lunch and the air travel of all those involved. Indeed, one of the perks of academia is the ability to travel internationally. Such ‘academic tourism’ increases exposure and visibility of our research; it leads to new collaborations; it allows us to conduct high-quality research and be exposed to new experiences and cultures. However, international mobility also has a huge negative environmental impact.
I have been struggling to balance my own carbon footprint with the opportunities that come with international academic travel. I am vegan, walk to work, buy local produce, separate my waste, and turn lights and heating off when not needed. I convene an online course, where I teach international students without the need for travel. When I do travel, I calculate my travel carbon emissions and pay an offset fee to chosen charities via a dedicated website. Still, my “biggest carbon sin” (https://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/27/sunday-review/the-biggest-carbon-sin-air-travel.html/) is definitely air travel. And although I try to maximize the professional and personal benefits of any trip and am very grateful for the international opportunities given to me, I am struggling to reduce my ‘carbon airprint’.
The University of Glasgow recently declared a ‘climate emergency’ (https://www.gla.ac.uk/news/headline_646140_en.html), adding its voice to a call for action by the Environmental Association of Universities & Colleges (EAUC). With its support for EAUC’s declaration comes a commitment to net zero emissions, divest from fossil fuels, undertake a climate change risk analysis for the University, work out an action plan and engage staff and students to act on this. The University of Glasgow’s Sustainability Working Group lays out its strategy towards increased sustainability in its Climate Change Adaptation Plan 2018-2028. Unfortunately, staff air travel is not included here, but the Sustainability Working Group is currently on revised plans, which will hopefully include acknowledgement of this issue and a clear action plan to address it. An opinion piece in the Huffington Post last year recommended transparency among academics, as well as an internal carbon tax. Additionally, a recent LSE blogpost suggests a change in promotion requirements, so that the pressure to travel internationally to get ahead is removed. Whatever the necessary course of action is, the University of Glasgow has the opportunity to be a true climate leader here.
I hope that our academic engagement nowadays comes with commitment. A commitment to ethical research and teaching practices. That commitment comprises the decolonization of our academic discipline through open-minded, inclusive, and representative teaching and research. However, it should also include a commitment to be more reflexive about our own impact on the environment, especially through air travel. Being a ‘no-plane (or less-plane) academic’ (https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2019/may/22/could-you-give-up-flying-meet-the-no-plane-pioneers?CMP=share_btn_tw) has certainly become easier with the advances of technology. There are even guidelines on how to organize a ‘nearly carbon-neutral conference’ (https://hiltner.english.ucsb.edu/index.php/ncnc-guide/). I believe that collectively our individual efforts can have a measurable impact on the environment. Reducing the amount of academic air travel is necessary and doable. Let’s start now.
Featured Image Credit: https://philippineslifestyle.com/philippines-big-source-plastic-pollution/
All other images by Emiline Smith
Emiline’s research primarily focuses on Asia; she has done fieldwork in Hong Kong, China, Indonesia, Myanmar and Singapore. She explores how and why participants take part in illicit transnational trades, and how urban settings, especially so-called ‘global cities’, facilitate such trade.